I write, therefore I think

I recently inherited an Autograph book from the early 1900s wherein friends of the owner had handwritten in copperplate script pithy sayings, poems and moral dictums. In many cases the written contributions were accompanied by ink sketches or water-coloured paintings. Those who leaf through the book now exclaim at the quality of the handwriting and the care taken by the contributors to offer their friend something personal and where possible, artistic. Undoubtedly, each contribution took time and effort. That testimony is apparent 100 years later. Something of Ella, May,Lilian, Molly, Henry, Jessie, Ethel and Gertie lives on in this precious autograph book. Will a collection of emails discovered a century from now stir someone's heart as this book does mine?

It is hard to think of a contemporary equivalent to a handwritten message, though multitextual collages of individualised pictures and text possibly offer something of a parallel. Or do they?

If handwriting disappears as a form of personal communication, will it matter? There is evidence that the act of handwriting activates a different part of the brain to that involved in word processing and that handwriting improves literacy (Berninger,V.et al 2002: Jones, D. & Christensen, A. 1999) while concerns are expressed about the possibility that handwriting skills will soon be regarded as obsolete. The fine motor skills, concentration required and reflective nature of composing by hand suggests it encourages deep learning. Composing by hand offers a different qualitative experience (cognitively, affectively, kinaesthetically) to that of word processing and it is worthwhile considering whether handwriting still has a place in the technologically sophisticated classroom. While there is some research evidence for the enduring, pedagogical value of handwriting, we do need to consider carefully what we should most cherish in the technologies of old, and for what reason.

Certainly, handwriting still has a powerful social and personal impact. I doubt I am alone in appreciating communications from family and friends in whatever legible format or medium they send them. Am I alone in thinking that a different part of my appreciative mind, an affective part, is activated when I see a handwritten message, even a handwritten envelope? Not only do I respond more deeply, I remember the text more accurately. What did it mean for the writer in terms of commitment, pleasure (or drudgery) to compose a message using different media?

Perhaps the issue goes more deeply than handwriting itself to the matter of whether or not current classroom practices allow sufficient time and opportunity to develop the contemplative disposition which influences deep thinking and learning. That disposition tends to characterise committed writers. Now that volumes of information are readily available at the click of a computer the written recording of information is less necessary except as a rather laborious aid to memory. Nonetheless, the act of composing thought by writing (either by hand or word processor) is still necessary because such composing generates thought, and structures it, so enabling writers/thinkers to compose their own minds. As Vygotsky (1978) identified decades ago, writing and speech activate different parts of the brain. Written language has to carry within its words and structures, all the complexities of thought. In speech, nuances are conveyed through tone of voice, pitch, gesture and rhythm, assisted by the immediacy of feedback. When writing is generating thought, it is hard work, and the gratification felt in creating meaningful writing is often delayed.

The act of composing brings forth thoughts of which the writer is often previously unaware. In writing, thought is not only communicated to others, it is actually generated within the mind of the writer. Composing allows writers to discover what they think before they communicate it to others. There is opportunity to reflect, consider, become more or less committed to the meaning created, refine, edit, share or keep private the words created by writing processes. The time and energy required to engage fully in composing – whether by handwriting or word processing – doesn't fit readily with today's fast-paced society. Maybe today's thinkers don't need a slow track. The blogs and tweets filling up cyberspace (or it its capacity infinite?) might well communicate deep insights of great wisdom. If so, there may not be a need for handwriting, or for any serious, deeply composed written thought. I'm sceptical.

Before we succumb to the allure of the quick, the easy, the spontaneous, the ready-made, let's ponder the worth of the contemplative disposition, the hard-won, the practised and the deeply engaging mental processes involved in writing, thinking and learning. In the understandably enthusiastic uptake of new technologies, some caution needs to be exercised lest false and unwise gods are created in awe of swift access to multiple sources of information. Teaching and learning processes need to privilege above all else those which activate the critical, reflective mind: the mind created through the act of composing in writing and shaped by deep reflection.

Roslyn Arnold
21 July 2012